Privacy and Grief

Sometimes a Surgical Mask Feels Like a Gag by jparadisi 2010
One of the difficult things about working in an outpatient infusion clinic is not knowing the outcomes of many of our patients. They come to us for treatment from a multitude of physician’s offices, all over.  Cancer patients come at regular intervals for weeks, sometimes months. Many arrive with life-threatening disease looking for one last remission, or simply enough time to see a child graduate from high school or the birth of a grandchild.  We listen as they tell us about the disappointments and the blessings of a cancer patient. We meet their families and loved ones. When they complete the course of treatment, they stop coming in. Most of the time we never know what happens to them.  HIPPA privacy laws limit our ability to find out. This is very different from my previous work in pediatric intensive care units, where nurses celebrate a child’s long anticipated discharge home or attend at the child’s death, and grieve along with their parents. Either way, I knew what the outcome was and dealt with the accompanying emotions. I knew how to respond to families I ran into at a grocery store.

It happened again a few weeks ago. Drinking a cup of coffee I found her obituary in the morning paper. She was one of those special patients who were easy to love. Her prognosis was grim, but her attitude was good; she was a fighter. From a grainy newsprint photo, she looked out at me. She had hair in the photograph and I realized I’d never seen her with hair, but the eyes were the same, clear and full of laughter and hope. She’d been dead for few weeks by the time the obituary was printed.

HIPPA laws prevent me from looking up her family’s address and sending a card or flowers. The obituary did not include instructions to send donations to a favorite charity or anything like that. So I’ll send one off to one of mine, in honor of a patient who touched my life. Her name will not be mentioned, and her family will not know, but I will feel better.